2008 Top 25 Companies for Customer Experience

Forrester just released their Customer Experience Index for 2008. The study surveyed 4,500 people and asked them to rank 114 companies across 12 industries.

At a high level, the results were relatively sad: Only 11% of companies garnered a rating of "excellent", and 38% percent of firms were rated as “poor” or “very poor.”

This is pretty interesting in a day and age where Harris Research and Forrester say that between 82% and 85% of executives agree that customer experience is critical to competitive advantage and may well be the next competitive battleground over the next three years.

This lackluster performance also suggests an opportunity -- especially if I am correct in repeating a Harvard Business Review claim that a 5% decrease in customer attrition can increase profits by 25%. (Note: I saw that figure and wrote it down and am looking for the specific citation)

What's missing? Well, more than one person or post can cover, but consider this:

If you ask any large company to give you a site map of their website, most could provide one with ease. However, if you asked them to show you a cross-channel experience map that illustrates the "brand journey" for a key customer segment, they'd probably look at you with confusion.

Why does that matter? Well, it could mean a few things. No map may indicate there is no unified or accurate understanding of the actual customer experience that is being delivered. No map may mean there is no truly integrated plan to proactively manage customer experiences across channels. No map may also indicate an inability to unite the vision of leadership with all other "agents of experience" (staff, agencies, third parties, partners, etc.) to drive coordinated execution.


Just consider the incredible channel proliferation we've faced over the past two decades alone. It's enough to make one's head swim. The way we go to market, the way customers shop and the way we all communicate has shifted entirely. As we have attempted to adapt to this raging amount of change, the truth is this: our customer experiences simply evolved over time. Most were never strategically conceived for the environment we live in today...

For the most part, most of today's customer experiences can be likened to a structure that was built one room at a time: The floor plan is a confusing and in places, nonsensical. The many ad-hoc renovations have made the foundation uneven and unstable. Visitors (customers) do their best to navigate the rooms...and sometimes we knock holes in walls to make it easier... but the truth is there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. However, unlike the mansion with only a few doors to the outside -- in real life, our customers can leave easily, whenever they want.

What can we do about this?
Well, Forrester has some good recommendations, and I tend to agree with these. In addition to things like employing "Voice of the Customer" programs, leveraging data mining and BI tools and making customer experience a top priority, I'll add my thought that companies need to start with more fully understanding the true customer experience that is being delivered today.

To do this, I'm a proponent of employing interaction design principles to visually map out the customer experiences we deliver. . "Customer experience maps" are visual diagrams that illustrate the customer journey across channels, including the key linkages, programs, services and critical engagement intersections, where customers decide they'll leave you or love you. By engaging in proactive customer experience mapping companies can better understand the true customer experience, identify the pitfalls that damage relationships and fix what's broken. As they do this, they can begin to more proactively manage the experience, correct operational barriers that damage loyalty and better position themselves as listeners and customer advocates.

Getting back to Forrester's Report, Here are the top 25 performers:

1. Barnes & Noble
2. USAA (credit cards)
3. Borders
4. Amazon.com
5. Hampton Inn/Suites
6. BJ’s Wholesale Club
7. Sam’s Club
8. A credit union (bank)
9. Kohl’s
10. Marriott Hotels & Resorts
11. JCPenney
12. Target
13. Old Navy
14. Holiday Inn Express
15. eBay
16. Southwest Airlines
17. Macy’s
18. Apple
19. Costco Wholesale
20. Toys “R” Us
21. USAA (insurance)
22. CVS
23. Holiday Inn
24. Lowe’s
25. Staples

It's worth mentioning that a lot of the companies at the bottom are within industries that are facing financial hardship (e.g. Financial Services industries, Airlines), although not exclusively. It's easy to see how today's market factors can weigh in to customer experience viewing this report...

However, the good news is that even in a down economy, 58% of customers say they'll pay MORE for a better experience (Forrester also). It's time to get tactical on improving customer experience!

Giving a hat tip to Evelyn So Evelyn So for the link to Forrester's free complimentary research report. Enjoy!

Exp File: Shoe Carnival. Watch for Carnies!

I took a trip to Shoe Carnival in a rare shopping day recently. It turned out to be quite an experience... only in not such a positive way.

It was a quiet Tuesday around noon when I walked into the store. Business was slow, and was the only customer. I walked in to face a large center aisle with smaller shoe aisles branching off to the left and right. Men's shoes were on the left, women's shoes on the right. Children's shoes and clearance items at the back.

It was a pretty standard shoe store, at first glance.

The only other life in the store were two middle age sales guys. As I approached a center display, sales guy #1 quickly approached to ask if I needed help. I thanked him and said that I was just looking. He followed me for a second and reluctantly walked off. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed sales guy #2 eying me from a distance.

As I strolled around the store, the sales guys then began a maneuver I can best describe as "swimming the tank": Taking opposite positions within the store, they began gliding quickly and smoothly around the store and across the aisles. It was like a synchronized dance. They didn't have shoe boxes or inventory in their hands... or any obvious task in mind. It was weird.

As they conducted this coordinated sweep of the store, each one awkwardly passed me several times. When I made eye contact, both returned a rather forced and eager grin. They they were just walking around...watching...staring at ME - the only customer in the store. I began to feel like a single gal at a used car lot -- or a struggling tuna in the center of a shark tank... The whole thing made me feel uneasy.

After a few minutes of this truly bizarre behavior, I it occurred to me that perhaps they thought I was a shoplifter. This thought amused me, and I continued to wander the store - now more fixated on the antics of the sales guys than any of the shoes I saw. However, just when I thought the sales approach could not get much worse, I heard the rattle of an intercom and a very loud announcement that went something like this:

"LADIES!!!! For the next FIIIIIVE minutes only, we're running a special promotion JUST for you! Take FIIIIIVE DOLLARS off your next purchase of ANY pair of LADIES SHOES marked $24.99 or higher - but ONLY when you PURCHASE within the next FIVE MINUTES!"

To my shock, the announcer turned out to be sales guy #1, who passed me at the back of the store as I faced the entrance. He was holding a wireless microphone and he continued with the pitch:

"YES! For LADIES SHOES ONLY, you'll get FIVE DOLLARS OFF each pair marked $24.99 or higher. Ladies Shoes can be found ON THE LEFT SIDE of the store. Remember, to get this incredible deal, REMEMBER it only applies to purchases made within THE NEXT FIIIIIVE MINUTES."

...He then vanished around a corner, but he wasn't done yet. Continuing in a manner I can best describe as a rapid-fire narrative similar to the financial term disclaimers tacked on to the end of car-commercials....

"Please keep in mind that this offer does NOT apply to clearance items and cannot be used with any other special offer."


Now... I like bargains. However, I'm not one for pressure tactics when I'm shopping, and I'm certainly not desperate to save $5 on a pair of shoes. This is especially true when there's a caveat that I MUST find a pair I like, try them on and rush to the register within "FIIIIVE minutes".

In short, I was so turned off, I decided to leave the store. A new customer arrived just before I left. As I passed her, I mentally wished her well.

In retrospect, I realize the reason I don't like Carnivals is not because I don't enjoy thrill rides, games, deals and action. I love the smells of carnivals, and the people and excitement. I like the colors, riding roller coasters, goofing around in fun houses, eating funnel cakes and watching joyful children ride cheezy kiddie rides with cotton candy.

My problem with carnivals is this: I don't like carnival workers. I don't like "Carnies." Now, I mean no offense to any Carnie that may read this post. I am sure there are plenty of very nice, reputable, upstanding and clean Carnies out there, and this doesn't apply to you. Unfortunately, I can only speak only from my own experience, which frankly, may be biased and perhaps tainted by too much television.

For me, the word "Carnie" ushers in the acrid smell of cigarette smoke.... the vision of men with ruddy complexions, missing teeth, mullets, greasy jeans, t-shirts and empty beer bottles...and chubby women with frizzy hair and snug fitting t-shirts. These are people who have had a hard, nomadic life - one that may include a shady background or past incarceration.

The Carnies I have encountered have been mostly creepy. In my minds-eye, I picture a grim, beer bellied Carnie hustling people on to a rickety ride maintained (or controlled) primarily with a greasy wrench ... I also picture slick Carnies luring suckers with a cheap, straw-filled Sponge Bobs: YOURS to WIN!! Just $5 for three throws....Feel the cheapness...the hustle...

It's a bit dramatic, yes. But here's my point:

As an experience architect, it would seem to me that Shoe Carnival, in creating an innovative brick-and-mortar experience would choose to capitalize on some of the more positive aspects of the Carnival environment, rather than the more questionable or negative ones.

Rather than the Carnie-like hard-sell and intimidating sales maneuvers... how about capitalizing on things like the senses: With color, yummy smells, popcorn and music? How about offering easily won games (read: no pressure) that offer the thrill of a bargain? How about driving customer delight with low-pressure service, lighthearted fun and smiles. Maybe balloons for the kids? Based on this incidence, I'd say the Shoe Carnival experience may warrant further examination.

I can't yet say whether my experience matches that offered at all Shoe Carnival's stores, or if mine was an isolated incident. I did some checking and the company has experienced growth and was even ranked by Forbes in November as a solid retail investment. So it can't all be bad.

However, perhaps this type of feedback is something the leadership team at Shoe Carnival should consider as they refine and cultivate a unique in-store experience -- especially as they close a number of stores this year. Location isn't the only key to success... good experience is.

If you've visited Shoe Carnival and have some thoughts, feel free to comment or send it my way.

Intel's Social Media Guidelines - Two Thumbs Up

Giving a friendly hat tip to my twitter pal, @asfaq for pointing out to me tonight that Intel has a publicly available Social Media policy.

This is quite a contrast to other companies, like Johnson and Johnson, who doesn't yet have a publicly available policy, or set of social media guidelines or policies for their business. However, to be fair, it's harder for any company in pharmaceuticals to publish anything publicly - or to engage in social media due to heavy government regulation and HIPAA.

But I digress. Intel's guidelines are a breath of fresh air!

At a time when so many people are free to point out what companies are doing WRONG in social media, Intel's approach is a great example of doing things right. The policy is really well written and goes beyond what might be considered a "POLICY" document. It's a useful guide on how to engage appropriately in social media to drive success. It's proactive, consultative, helpful and educates people about their responsibility when engaging in social media. They've even got a special email address set up for individuals who have questions.

You can check it out for yourself here.

"Bob" could be any of us.

Chris Brogan highlights the story of a guy we'll call Bob... a guy trying to do the right thing for a company that can't get on board with social media interaction.

Bob is obviously a guy who cares about being customer-centric. He cares about his products. He cares about being forward thinking... The thing is, Bob could be any of us.

Bob's story illustrates why it's essential for companies to be totally on board before diving in to Social Media experimentation. Once you are out there, you're OUT there... and it's very hard to go back to status quo.

My advice to Bob - Wipe the Dust off your feet and go do what you are doing for the competition!

This is a pretty compelling story... Check it out. Thanks, Chris.

Rapid Response Tumblr Case Study

Recently I posted some comments on a blog posting on a great post from Critical Mass on Creating a Rapid Response Culture. Today, while catching up with email, I found a comment sent to me from Sandeep at VizEdu, telling me they used my feedback, along with insight from Critical Path's David Armano and Frank Eliason at Comcast to create a small interactive Tumblr case study on rapid response. I thought this was a pretty interesting way What a great way to grab quotes and assemble a visually driven case study. Check it out here or see below:

Gift Lists and Shopping

Happy Cyber Monday, folks! In the tradition of holiday cheer, I was recently interviewed for this CNN article on the power of gift registries and wish lists. Sadly, I wasn't quoted accurately in the bold portion of this quote:

"Registries provide a retailer with robust data on customer preferences, fuel their marketing ability and extend their reach to a new audience via gift buyers," says Leigh Duncan-Durst, founder of LivePath, a customer experience consultancy. "Plus, it saves money by reducing the chances that gifts will be returned."

Actually, I believe what I said is that, even if an item purchased through a list or registry is returned, the registries help ensure that consumer dollars stay with a given retailer through exchanges or credits - rather than cash-back refunds. :-)

I believe I also said a lot about the future of gift registries and wish lists, referencing social media. :-) Nevertheless, the ettiquite part of this article offers some great considerations.

Cheers, and happy shopping!

Today on Marketing Profs

I spent some time thinking about frequent travel and loyalty programs. Flushed out some thoughts today at the Marketing Prof's Daily Fix. Please check it out, and let me know what you think!

Best Buy: Empowering the Organization Through Social Media

I've been writing for a few years about Best Buy and their successful attempts to become more customer centric. Here are two very insightful videos courtesy of Peter Hirshberg's Vimeo Channel. The first is Peter's interview with CEO Brand Anderson at Google's Zeitgiest on Best Buy's use of social media to empower the organization. The second is a video showcasing The Company as Wiki from Best Buy. All in all - Best Buy is an outstanding case study! Enjoy!


From peter hirshberg.

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From peter hirshberg.

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I have it on very solid authority that Best Buy will soon be launching a customer listening / co-creation site that provides them with greater access to voice of the customer. Stay tuned for more great stuff!

Data Mining and Customer Experience

Last week, I spoke at the Clarabridge User Conference at the spectacular Gaylord National in National Harbor, MD. It was a great experience.

Clarabridge is a company that provides incredibly robust text mining tools that also plug into Business Intelligence tools like MicroStrategy, Cognos and others. In short, Clarabridge's data mining solutions allow companies to mine structured and unstructured customer feedback to create highly robust views from any data repository. These flexible views of customer data help companies identify themes and trends -- enabling drill down into actual customer comments for increased context and insight. The technology is being actively used by companies like Intuit, Marriott, GAP and United Airlines, Gaylord Entertainment and other leading corporations.

One of the things I noted from attendees actively using the tools was the claim that Clarabridge has driven significant business value, ROI and cost savings, even in early stages of deployment. That’s something that’s really nice to hear, and part of the reason I wanted to speak at this conference.

I was impressed by the number of sharp people at this event. Most were mid-to-senior executive level leaders, working in Customer Contact Center, Marketing, Product Development or Operations. The insights they shared went far beyond how to use a tool like Clarabridge, extending into best practices for gathering and measuring customer insight, how to harness insights, rally the organization for customer-focused change, and the future applications of data mining technologies.

I presented on the topic of “The Experience Enterprise” with other speakers including Colin Shaw, of Beyond Philosphy and Bob Thompson, founder of Customer Think. Clarabridge also assembled some terrific customer panels to harness insight “from the trenches,” which enabled attendees to harness lessons-learned and best practices from those working on the front-lines with the tools. In general, it was a great time to hear from the user community, check out new features and functionality, and discuss the future application of this type of technology in the field.

Consistent themes that surfaced (in no specific order) include the following:

  • Impacts of Down Economy. Participants agreed that while the coming economy is driving change in their organizations, customer intelligence solutions such as BI and Data Mining may not deeply feel the effects because of the direct value they provide to the business. This is good news for this technology sector and for companies working to become more customer-centric.

  • Getting Started with Data Mining. Intuit’s recommended approach is to develop a proof of concept hosted at the vendor. Rather than purchasing, hosting and configuring the solution alone, starting with an “out of the box” configuration that can be applied across the organization. Identify and attempting to resolve a key issue by obtaining more meaningful customer insight. Once the insight is obtained, “tell the story” using real data, real quotes and trending. Use the tool to demonstrate how insights were obtained. Once the tool is embraced, roll it out within a targeted area with an eye toward a larger, disciplined deployment.

  • Customer Surveys. Consensus is that companies are relying too heavily on post-service surveys. This creates a number of problems. First, the every day consumer /customer is being “surveyed to death,” resulting in frustration, filtering and lower response rates. Second, post-service surveys are reactive, in nature. While post-service surveys are a necessary evil, attendees agreed on the importance of gathering “in-stream” feedback from customers. Using this feedback, it’s possible to adjust course more proactively to better manage customers and foster retention of high risk customers.

  • Net Promoter Score. Many attendees acknowledged the usefulness of the Net Promoter Score and also acknowledged that it may be too simple or narrow to drive meaningful insight into the customer experience. While it is highly effective in illustrating the outcome of a customer’s experience, it fails to illustrate what’s not working, what’s breaking down, and what could be improved to drive better success.

  • Data Mining and Frontline Employees. Frontline employees are an incredibly important resource for providing customer-focused insight to companies. Using new tools and technologies like Data Mining are, potentially as useful when applied internally as they are applied to the external customer audience. Using the tools in this manner can also be quite economical. Listening to frontline employees and empowering the frontline with the tools and authority to solve customer problems is critical for future success. Balancing this need will be a challenge with the current economy.

  • Data Mining and Social Media Channels. The application of data mining technologies within social media channels is the “next big thing.” As companies lose control of customer dialog, harnessing insights, trends and information from unstructured channels like Facebook and Twitter will be increasingly necessary and not without analytical challenges.


  • Data Mining and Emotional Experiences. Leveraging data mining to extract robust information about how customers think, behave and respond emotionally to aspects of their customer experience(s), may be one of the next-generation applications of these tools. Developing the ability to recognize “warning signs” (based on emotional response) in customers and proactively drive risk mitigation tactics will become an essential component of designing good experience. Understanding the thoughts and emotions that motivate customer behaviors and drive employee decisions will play an essential role in designing and delivering future branded experiences.

  • Data Mining and Customer Experience. Research shows that executives agree that Customer Experience will be the next competitive battleground in a rough economy. Providing good experience is highly operational in nature and requires a formalized approach that is driven from the top-down. Adopting a formal approach, including mapping key tasks and experiences, identifying gaps and developing a plan for improvement is critical. Utilizing new technologies to harness in-stream customer insight is an essential part of developing more meaningful, satisfying experiences.

    Difficult to summarize three days of discussion in one small post, but this is a feeble attempt. In summary, kudos to the team at Clarabridge for hosting their first user conference and an outstanding event. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the technology, I recommend a visit to the site and check out the Flash demo and use cases.
  • Social Media Categories

    I've been playing around with a list I've compiled of over 3,500 social media applications, tools and utilities ... This has prompted me to ask whether or not there is a standardized industry list of social media categories - or a well thought out manner of categorizing the proliferating social media landscape. Thought I'd put it out for discussion.

    Few up-front notes on my goals/questions related to this exercise:
    • Keep it broad enough to be meaningful.
    • Focus on the "main focus" of the site/tool/app with recognition that there may be some overlap between categories
    • Consider "features" such as profiling, rankings, purchasing, etc... as attributes of brands within each category - rather than categories themselves.
    • Also keep topics, such as "events" or "teens" as a separate attribute of a brand within a specific category.
    • Software/hosting providers aren't the major focus here - perhaps put these in as another category?
    • Services only for corporate use (e.g. Yammer) might warrant a new category
    So - here are the categories I have so far. Please weigh in!

    Aggregators
    – Any site that takes (refeeds) content from a bunch of sites and lumps it together in one site. Content may include news, profiles, blog posts, etc. These sites allow/encourage community rankings of site content, and repost content based on popularity.

    Wikis – Sites that offer user-driven or collaboratively created information. These can be encyclopaedic, like Wikipedia.

    Mobile – Any site or tool that is focused on mobile use or marrying web with mobile

    General Networks – Large, general communities that offer a wide array of services, including profiles, messaging, “friending”, social utilities, media sharing…

    Niche Networks - Communities of any size that offer a wide array of services, including profiles, messaging, “friending”, social utilities, media, which are focused on a narrow topic or area of interest. For example: pet lovers, artists, politicos.

    Media Sharing - Sites or utilities that primarily focus on sharing media of various types, including:
    • Books
    • Audio (includes music, radio, podcast)
    • Video
    • Television
    • Film
    • Animation
    • Multimedia
    • Slideshows
    • Presentations
    • Live Casting
    Blogging - Sites or utilities focused on full-scale blogging. These can include companies that host blogging platforms, utilities for bloggers, blog aggregators, etc.
    Microblogging – Sites or utilities focused on micro-blogging, or the 140 character or less quick status updates offered by Twitter, Friend Feed and many others

    Bookmarking / Link Sharing
     – Ablity to memorize URL and share it…de.licio.us and other sites apply)

    Utilities – Downloadable (e.g. Desktop application) or embeddable (e.g. You Tube Video or MyBloglog reader list) tools that can be used for a number of purposes. These include but are not limited to:
    • Search (finding anything!)
    • Desktop (e.g. downloadable desktop tool like Twirhl – twitter app
    • Productivity (to-do lists, etc.)
    • Contact Management (manage your contacts across outlook/email accounts)
    • Profile Management (e.g. manage your profile across Social Media sites)
    • Calendar/Events Management (create your own, create an integrated calendar with friends)
    • Messaging (messaging others via mobile, SMS, other)
    • Status/Lifestreaming (Manage/view status across social media sites e.g. hellotxt, ping.fm)
    • Listening/Measurement (Enable users to measure social media usage)
    • Blogging (some are just for bloggers)

    Real World Connections – Sites that connect users online to real-world events in their local communities.
    Experience Reporting – Any site with emphasis on having users report their experiences (life experiences, customer experiences) related to any event. This may include a life event, shopping event or transaction, attendance at a conference, etc.
    Location-Based Services – Sites that allow users to interact with other users or view data based on geography. E.g. Yelp (local reviews of local business)

    Virtual Worlds – Sites that literally allow users to create avatars and interact within a 3D virtual environment such as Second Life

    I'd appreciate your input on these categories! Is there anything you'd add or adjust? For example, where do you think Squidoo and Google Knol might fit?

    The Accidental Evangelist

    Happy Monday!

    As follow up to last week's Whole Foods swearing entry, I posted a follow up on the Marketing Profs website. The topic addresses another angle of what transpired, called "Accidental Evangelism". Please feel free to check it out, as well as the many other insightful articles posted there.

    On a lighter note, my friend, Ann, has a new post on her Annarchy blog - featuring yours truly! Ann is a gifted writer. I find each one of her posts a delightful literary morsel.

    Enjoy!

    Social Media Missteps: Is it okay for brands to swear?

    As a consultant, I help my clients navigate the array of proliferating new social media opportunities and establish a presence that builds brand affinity and relationship. So, I'm always looking for examples -- good and bad -- of how brands are using social media.

    As I wound down today, I checked my Twitter stream and noticed a post from @wholefoods, whom I follow. Here's the screen capture, and what it said:



    "wholefoods TOTD: @Joanmarie Oh my f'ing gawd: Whole Foods has Hatch Chiles. From NM. On sale. Apparently I have died, but am not as evil as I thought."


    Now, I have my personal opinions about this tweet -- and I realize they're personal. I just thought it was reasonable to pose the question of whether or not it's acceptable for your trusted brands to be saying things like "Oh my f'ing gawd" in the public social media channels that you -- and your family -- follow.

    As a corporation, it may not be adviseable to talk to your social network the same way you'd talk to the guys in the locker room, a friend over coffee, or your posse over beers. To many people - especially those with families or who are religious, this statement might be highly offensive.

    The lesson here is a simple one. Every social media manager today must remember that, to your followers, you ARE the brand. Our own personal values (language, personality, culture and preferences) will not always align with brand values, which is why it's necessary to think twice and conduct frequent reality checks.

    Unfortunately, when we screw up in a Social Media channel and misrepresent the brand, we instantly broadcast to our collective of followers... and vicariously to their networks. As a result, our messages can then be taken downstream quickly in the current cross-channel chatter.... resulting in things like this little post.

    TO be fair, I waited for a response for more about an hour from Wholefoods and got nothing back. I can see how someone may have left for the day, but in reality, @wholefoods did continue to tweet other users and ignore the three tweets I sent regarding the comment. This was unfortunate and a missed opportunity for Whole Foods, who could have easily extinguished a fire by saying something good natured like this:

    "Oops, I'm sorry. Perhaps I shouldn't have used that term. I just LOOOOVE Hatch Chiles and got too excited! It won't happen again!"

    OR

    "Oops. This was a retweet of someone's post for our 'Tweet of the Day' and I didn't mean to offend anyone. Please accept my apologies." (I added this when I realized what TOTD meant).

    I did a similar thing once, when I inadvertently posted a comment to Twitter that someone had sent me via IM, which contained "the s word." Instant ownership and apology when necessary!

    While I waited for a response, I did get some direct and open messages from good number of people expressing their opinion about the tweet .... and all of them thought @wholefoods' comment within that post was a misstep.

    This is a great example, not just for Whole Foods, but for anyone leading social media within corporate environments today. When you tweet, plurk, blog, feed, utter, or other in social media YOU ARE THE BRAND! Therefore, it's always a good idea to edit yourself based on your brand's values, rather than your own.

    Experience Files: Ruby Tuesday's "Handcrafted" Hype

    Last night before "meet the teacher" night at my daughter's school, we took the family to Ruby Tuesday. I hadn't been there in awhile. As we waited for our waiter, one of the things that jumped out at me on the table was a tent card, which listed featured drinks. The first item was a "Handcrafted Drafts". "Funny....I thought... handcrafted? Since when is Sam Adams hard to find, and made by hand?"

    I shrugged off my own critique as nit picky...until, that is, we got the menu. I noticed immediately that they also featured Handcrafted Steaks and Handcrafted Burgers. My daughter and husband rolled their eyes. Looking deeper, I also noticed on their beverages page that they also feature "Handcrafted Martinis" and their bottled beers were labeled "Handcrafted Bottles." In fact, the word "handcrafted" was so grossly
    overused, it was somewhat unbelievable:


    Thus began the jokes, as we sat at our "handcrafted table" looking at our "handcrafted menus" and "hand-crafted" napkin/utensil set... Our chuckling increased after the waiter offered to take our drink orders and suggested a handcrafted drink. It was all pretty kinda silly!

      To the folks at Ruby Tuesday,

      We understand that people may confuse you with Applebees. We understand that you do not want to be viewed as "fast food", but rather "Simple Fresh American Dining."

      We also understand that, to the extent you can change these market perceptions, you can up your price to $10 for a burger and $15 for a steak.

      We aren't dummies, so please do not insult our intelligence or attempt to brainwash us with far-reaching marketing copy.

      ...And please do find a thesaurus!


      Love,
      LivePath

    The truth is this: No matter how much we spend on getting our copy nailed (and a lot of Ruby's copy is written quite well), it's still the window dressing of the experience. When we go too far with copy and over bill the brand, we find ourselves teetering on the edge of ridiculous!

    Selecting words is important. Personally, when I think of the word "handcrafted", I think of my brother-in-law, who is a carpenter and a true craftsman. I think of my husband, who builds truly hand-constructed engines that go very, very fast. I also think of Etsy, a site that sells handmade items that are truly unique and special.

    When I think of handcrafted, I also think of one of my small, local clients, Rug & Relic (link forthcoming, site in development). This client is a combination of an art gallery, a showroom for totally exquisite rugs a hand an import house for fascinating Turkish antiques.

    Everything they sell is totally unique...from handmade bird houses that were used to keep Partridges, to huge hand-carved wooden yogurt churns, designed to swing from trees. I love listening to the owners tell the unique story of each individual piece. They've got gigantic, hand-thrown ceramic vases that are hundreds of years old, sitting upon hand-wrought iron stands, and hand-hammered antique copper cauldrons big enough to bathe in. From the art to the custom-made lighting....everything they sell is truly hand-constructed. Because most of it is recycled, it's also green. The place is just cool!

    With Rug & Relic, the product, the interface, the customer interaction drive the experience. They never over bill themselves ... they are driven by word-of-mouth, and they don't mind being an exclusive, best-kept secret. Their customers are their greatest evangelists.

    Going back to Ruby's... I think it's very possible to find new language and still communicate a message of craftsmanship without wearing it out. Our experience was otherwise good. My turkey burger was great. The service was very good, and the environment was pleasant. The experience was solid enough to stand on its own without the marketeers pounding us with over-reaching messages.

    Like I've said before. Sometimes it's just better not to push things too far.

    Live Path listed in 100 Top Webmaster Blogs by and For Women

    I was humbled to be recently listed among the "100 Awesome Webmaster Blogs by and for Women" from the Web Hosting Database. There are so many incredible women listed here, and the Experience Architect weblog is in great company. Feel free to check out the post. It is conveniently chunked into bloggers by category. ;-)

    (Note: no image today due to some kind of bug with blogger)

    CEM A-Listers on the Web: The Shoemaker's Kids Have No Shoes!

    I try to keep up with other leaders in Customer Experience Management (CEM) by periodically checking out their websites, presentations, weblogs, podcasts, etc. Today, I decided to do a little refresher, specifically looking for recent research, case studies and methodologies and compare them with my own experience, knowledge and approaches.

    Frankly I was saddened by what I found when I perused the corporate web sites of several CEM “A-listers.” The feeling I got was scarily similar to the feeling that motivated me to write “Experience Evangelism: Get some Healing!” a few years ago. Evidently, not much has changed since then.

    There’s something wrong when so many of the leading authors and speakers in customer experience haven’t updated their corporate site designs for years! I mean, how about a new promotional image or something? Some of these sites featured the same simple design with a little new content (zzz) , others were well, unattractive! Some others have added new content have obviously outgrown their original information architectures, yielding confusing navigation and cluttered interfaces, littered with a cacophony of content and media. In general, it seemed that these sites seemed to offer very little little new content (except exhortations to "buy the book!", "come to our conference or workshop" or hire "x" as a speaker.

    In general, from a best-practices standpoint, many of these sites suffer from a gross overuse of stock photography. They also offer little online engagement and highly visible, high value, free content.

    It follows, therefore, that I was surprised by the lack of integration of social media on the A-lister websites… including cross-linkage from the corporate sites to leader-authored weblogs… and from the leader web logs to social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, social bookmarks, etc). In fact, to even find the weblogs for many of these leaders I had to wade through searches on Technorati. Most of them have blogs...disconnected from the corporate consulting sites... could only find the facebook and twitter addresses for one leader.

    In short, beyond the shocking state of the websites, I found a lot of the same content and insights that have been present since early 2005… There was a LOT of talk…. a lot of egregious self-promotion … and of course, calendar links to conferences and speaking engagements, lists of books to read, complete with purchasing links. In honestly, I would rather have found:

  • Forums for discussion
  • Tangible, actionable best practices
  • Useful case studies
  • Discussion of new organizational models
  • Data about trends
  • Advice for the struggling CCO/CXO (Chief Customer/Experience Officer)

  • It's important to note that the software companies in the CEM space seemed to do a better job on the web than the high profile leading consultants at which I looked. Specifically, I was pleased by some of the free content (white papers and Forrester reports) available from Tealeaf, RightNow Technologies and Clarabridge.

    Disclosure: both Right Now and Clarabridge have relationships to Live Path, although I can't take credit for the good, free content they are providing.. ;-)

    With regards to the "A" list experts in customer experience management, their corporate sites left a bad taste in my mouth. They seem most interested in self-promotion, as evidenced by demonstrated focus in keeping personal information (books, bio) up to date, rather than focusing on creating more meaty, high value content for clients and prospects.

    We tend to invest our time where our hearts are… right?

    To me, this is not “customer centric”, innovative, immersive, creative or positively experiential - and would seem to fight the very principles these individuals stand for! This is surprising, coming from the same people that are advocating customer-co-creation and innovation... the same people who extol the benefits of being engaged with customers, listening to customers, providing value, building a "customer centric" organization, providing "seamless" experience... etc.

    If you ask me, it seems the CEM shoemaker’s kids don't have -- or aren't wearing -- any shoes!

    Now, to be fair -- my grandma always says that when you point one finger at someone else, there are more fingers pointing back at you.

    As such,even though my site is updated...and I'm active on on Twitter, Facebook and Plurk, I must reluctantly add myself to the wall of shame: I will admit that I haven’t managed to update my website’s resources page for a pathetically long time…nor have I incorporated my twitter feed or a few much needed links on my blog page.

    I won’t insult you with (even a very GOOD) excuse for this. I won’t remind you how hard it is to keep your own site up to date while managing your own client work. Please forgive me for my hypocrisy… I am resolved to correct these things very soon.

    The thing is, I’m an independent consultant with great partnerships and a wonderful, even impressive client list … but I am an independent. In contrast, many of these experience leaders have teams of people working for them. They manage large engagements with blue chip clients and have heavy, international exposure. As such, I simply can’t understand the lack of investment in what may perhaps be their most high profile and influential channel.

    I guess I'm surprised because I expected more! There’s definitely room for improvement on the web for CEM practitioners - an a lesson in it for us all.

    You tell me: Is it worth hiring CEM consultants if they don’t practice what they preach? Do you judge a company based on the engagement factor of their web presence? Are site experiences that are informative, interesting, attractive, and up to date important to you in your choice of a consultant? Can a CEM consultancy be credible if you can’t tell if its consultants are well versed in emerging technologies?

    …or am I over reacting?

    Experience Files: Seamless Web's Recipe for Success

    I got a tweet from Steve Rubel about Seamless Web giving away $100 worth of free food to bloggers who mention the company in a blog post. My first reaction was “Hmmm…good word-of-mouth marketing attempt, but is there really something worth writing about?” I decided to find out, and was very pleased with the results.

    Seamless Web is doing some very smart things related to its business plan as well as its use of social media and word-of-mouth marketing. There's definitely some takeout (pun intentional) here for any smart marketer.

    First things first. If you're not already aware, Seamless Web bills itself as the "fastest, easiest, and smartest way to order food online." The company enables users to order from more than 2,000 restaurants in 14 major US cities (including New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco) and other cities in the UK.

    Simply visit Seamless’ website and anyone within a participating region can order from a myriad of restaurants in four simple steps:


    1. Enter your address – Using a simple form.

    2. Browse & select a restaurant – Based on your zip code, a list of restaurants will display. The list is programmed to allow users to order only from restaurants that are currently open. Users can mouse over restaurant names for a brief restaurant descriptions. They can also sort the restaurant list by price (up to five $), estimated delivery time, order minimum and customer rating (up to five stars).

    3. Browse & select from a menu – When a menu is selected, the interface displays the menu items in a simple, two-column display. A third column shows the “shopping cart” or order in process, and also showcases the restaurant’s most popular dishes to support user selection. Site users can roll over menu item listings for full descriptions or click to view more information and add the item to an order. Users who click to view more, or add to cart may add optional items (e.g. “add bacon”) or request order customizations (e.g. “hold the mayo” or “no nuts- I have a nut allergy!)

    4. Pay with a major credit card. Delivery fees range, based on the delivery service (in-house, third party). For some restaurants, delivery is free. For others, such as ones delivered by Takeout Taxi, delivery fees are $8.95. Tips may also be added to the order.

    Participating restaurants utilize the Seamless Web infrastructure to print incoming orders, which arrive within seconds. In turn, the restaurants send customized order confirmations via email, complete with estimated delivery times to site users. Participating restaurants then prepare the food and deliver it to the site user. After ordering, users can save their order for “next time” and also post ratings of participating restaurants for the reference of other site users.

    Seamless Web follows the example of other experience leaders by providing the basics of solid customer experience in a number of areas:

    Business Focus. Seamless Web is operating within a core competency. Following my (link) “Three Word Rule", we’ll call the company a “food delivery facilitator”. They don’t mess with food preparation or actual food delivery. Instead, they provide a one-stop ordering destination for customers, along with a robust communications infrastructure extensible to restaurants and delivery services (like Takeout Taxi) which effectively facilitate the delivery process. Smart!

    Customer Focus. Starting at a basic level, they make the food ordering process easier for the time starved. It’s more consistent than ad-hoc dialing and more customer-centric as a result. All site users get clear information. They can customize orders to accommodate for food allergies or personal taste. They can order a meal for immediate delivery or schedule delivery in advance. They can save their favorite orders to streamline future ordering. They are encouraged to rank the performance of participating restaurants performance for the benefit of the ordering community. The site caters to the needs of both individuals and corporations. Seamless Web also offers corporate accounts with catering services and discounts. The service Seamless offers is basic – but it’s basic done well!

    The User Experience. From a high-level usability perspective, Seamless sites are easy to access and they perform well. The main ordering site’s feature-rich interface is simple, streamlined, and not heavily graphics-infused. It successfully displays a lot of complex data in a very clear manner without many hitches. The language is simple and uncomplicated. FAQs provide detailed information on just about every topic you can imagine – clearly and concisely. The navigation functions well. While I’d like to see the 2.0 ability to order directly from a menu listing (rather than clicking on the item), Seamless Web has done a great job taking the ordering process and making it very simple and consistent across a myriad of restaurants and service providers. The blog follows the simple approach and is very up-to-date, engaging and entertaining, as well. The Facebook site is your is a standard cacophony of images, features and links… but overall, the online experience works - very well.

    Social and Word-of-Mouth Marketing. Probe into Seamless Web and you won’t just find a site for ordering food. You’ll find solid grassroots marketing, word-of-mouth initiatives and solid use of Social Media. Check out the Seamless Weblog. There you’ll see their streetwise marketing at work, hear updates from the team, find weekly announcements about new restaurant openings and capture the occasional unwitting celebrity endorsement. You’ll also find Seamless Web active on Twitter. There’s also a Facebook site for Seamless Web, where you’ll find several thousand Friends, a viral video serial called “Johnny and Cam Order Food” (one part obnoxious, one part informative), featured restaurants, maps, featured fans, user reviews, contests (more free schwag) and more. They're keeping these sites fun, interesting and up-to-date. Good stuff.

    Also, with regard to customers and word-of-mouth marketing Seamless does two things right:

    1. The encourage customer dialog on a number of levels, across channels.This is a recipe for success.

    2. They reward customer evangelism. Tell your friends about Seamless Web, and they’ll send you a 25% off coupon the first time your friend orders (they even provide a contact widget to help). Become a fan on Facebook and enter to win an iPhone 3G. Write a blog post and get coupons for $100 in free food - in addition to cross links and recognition on their own blog. All great ways to encourage word-of-mouth.

    If I were to offer any criticism, it would center on the brand name and design. It seems Seamless Web would be more suited as a name for a web development firm -- rather than a destination for ordering takeout. From a branding perspective, I’m just not sure why the company went with this name. It seems like a missed opportunity to me. Perhaps there was an executive desire to be a bit vague (ala "Amazon" - allowing for future business expansion into a non-food market) or some another reason, which defies my own pea-brain logic? From a design perspective, I don’t mind the color red, if it’s done well – but I’m not a real fan of the logo, or the tag line that fails to “pop” on the page. So, there’s definitely room for improvement here -- but in truth, this can be easily remedied for the company.

    In conclusion, while Seamless Web is offering people free schwag for posts … I am not posting for the free food.

    In my line of work, I am paid to be somewhat critical. It's easy to find reasons to be critical with regard to customer experience and sometimes it's easier to be more negative than positive. That’s why it is positively refreshing to find smart companies that offer solid and well-rounded customer experiences. Therefore, it's my pleasure to offer hearty approbation and best wishes to the folks at Seamless Web. It is my sincere hope that we all take away something tasty from the company’s example.

    Plurkers Take Care of Their Own

    Interesting drama unfolded yesterday on Plurk. I won't attach a link because I'd rather not get anyone in trouble. Nevetheless, what happened does this illustrate the power of social media and community and surface some issues related to privacy and social media.

    The nutshell version of what transpired is this:

  • A fellow Plurker (we'll call her "Freaking Out") was, evidently being bothered by another individual (evidently another Plurker) we'll call "Creepy Harasser" for a period of one month.

  • Evidently, Creepy Harasser had obtained the individual's home phone number using basic details found in Freaking Out's Plurk profile, and had used a cell phone to call this person every few days for over a month.

  • A "friend" of Freaking Out (we'll call him "Helpful") posted a well-intentioned Plurk alerting others about the harassment. Helpful asked for practical suggestions on what the Freaking Out could do to stop Creepy Harasser. Helpful also publicly listed the offender's cell phone number for all to see. Evidently, Creepy was not so smart related to caller ID.

  • Fellow Plurkers were angered and apalled, and the Plurk incited a flurry of comments … from encouragement to “call the Po Po" to suggestions on how fellow Plurkers could impose some justice on Creepy Harasser. Things began to escalate.

  • It was not long before this story motivated one fellow Plurker, we'll call him "Justice" to call Creepy Harasser, himself. As he did, Justice narrated his actions in the Plurkstream. He repeatedly prank called the guy... making obscene comments until Creepy stopped answering the phone. After this, Justice began filling up Creepy's voicemail with terribly bad You Tube video music. (I found this all a bit over the top, but I must admit I laughed pretty hard about it).

  • Other Plurkers cheered from the sidelines, and quickly other Plurkers either joined in or promised to join in on pranking Creepy - even those from outside the U.S! The Plurkstream was full of punitive suggestions, such as signing Creepy up for spam text, ring tones, etc.

    As time progressed, things gradually fizzled out ...

    Now, I'm not advocating harassment of any kind... and I did not join in. I don't know if the factual details behind the harassment are accurate. I know the person who posted the information was merely looking for recommendations to help his friend. I don't know the person that was harassed... or the harasser.

    That being said - the sense of camaraderie combined with the sheer outrage and backlash from the fine people of Plurkopolis was impressive! I'd go so far as to assert that this type of backlash might take care of a creep even more quickly than taking action with his cell phone company or calling the police would (especially if the offender was out of state)!

    The message was clear: Don't mess with Plurkistan!

    Even so, while part of me took comfort in the “protective behavior” of the crowd… I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the same angry mob had its facts wrong, or were mislead in some way. I thought about how easily it would be for many well-intentioned, and well networked people to be led astray. We know from history this happens.

    How easily could one person trigger the harassment of an innocent person or people? Take it to another level and how could the rumor mill impact companies, brands, stock market behavior.... as news travels faster and faster through social media.

    Taking it down a notch...I had to ask myself well I know all the people we “friend” or “follow” online? And with the answer to that I had to ask my often over-sharing self, how much about myself should I really share in this new world where "friend" is a verb - but not necessarily a state of being.

    The reality of that makes me bit more sober about my own participation in social media. In the long run, I’m sure we’re not done hearing stories like this one. Just some food for thought!
  • Customer Value Perceptions in a Sagging Economy

    The sagging U.S. economy is creating additional dimensions of customer need that may well force many companies to re-think their value propositions. Here’s a good case in point:

    My husband decided to take a road trip with our 17 year old this summer. With gas at a national average of $4.10 a gallon, our SUV with a V8 engine would prove to be far from economical to drive. Our pickup truck would be equally fuel efficient and even less comfortable. Our ’67 Camaro Pro Street Racecar with 750 horsepower wasn’t a practical option (although they would have gotten there fast!). Finally, our daughter’s car, while very fuel efficient, was probably not reliable enough for a hot, 14 hour journey.

    So! We decided to rent a car with better fuel economy. Based on our calculations, even with the cost of the rental we’d save $150 in gas - a respectable amount. Since my hubby loves a road trip…he reserved a mid-sized sedan with 35-40 MPG and cruise control from Enterprise Rental Car several weeks in advance.

    When my husband went to pick it up Thursday morning, the smiling attendant apologetically told him they were out of the car he'd reserved and handed him the keys to another car in the same “rental class.” Evidently, this was one tiny car… complete with 13 inch tires, no CD player and no cruise control. While it was fuel efficient, my husband stands over six feet and more than 250 lbs… so he was not happy with the tiny, gutless, box on wheels...especially for a 14 hour journey. He handed them back the keys and asked them what they could do for him.

    The Enterprise people were very kind, offering him a complimentary “upgrade”… to a lovely SUV. He explained that he already owned an SUV -- and had rented the sedan for the fuel economy. The representatives were perplexed. Evidently no one had turned down an “upgrade” before. After looking around a bit, they found a suitable sedan at another location – only without cruise control - and offered to drive him out to pick it up.

    It wasn't a big deal. He and our daughter were on the road within a few short hours… However, as they left in the dark blue sedan, this incident got me thinking...

    As a road warrior, in the past, I always wanted the upgrade…to the convertible, the SUV… anything but the car I’d reserved, usually! Today, however, I might think a bit more practically when offered the “upgrade”… especially if the expenditure isn't a tax writeoff...

    As for tomorrow? It is likely that we'll be looking at an entirely different ballgame. Pundits predict the price of gas will escalate to $6 - $7 per gallon as early as this fall… a number that makes even me queasy and I don't have a work commute...

    This isn't just about rental cars... it's about everything. Fuel prices and food shortages are going to impact the price of everything else… and as this hits our wallets, we’re going to see more changes in every day consumer spending.... and in our perceptions of "value."

    Just last night, we went to get ice cream and saw an apologetic, hand-written note about price increases on the drive-through sign. This is happening everywhere -- in nickels, dimes, and dollars -- but it all adds up. While it may take longer to hit the thicker wallet, signs say it will impact most of us at some point.

    As a result of these economic changes, the everyday consumer’s perceptions of value are likely to shift and change. What we have justified as "need" at yesterday's price, just may become a luxury tomorrow.

    An $6 per day Starbucks habit may dissolve against costs like $500 per month for gas, $400 per month for heating and $4 per pound for chicken breast. Unfortunately, as far as Starbucks goes, developing an active customer listening website or an extensive program to retrain baristas my not help the company with this reality, as evidenced by the recent closure of 600 stores.

    And Starbucks, which I love, is just an example of one company getting hit by a changing economy.

    The point is this: As business owners and marketers we can stick our heads in the sand… or we can think practically about how we’re going to address consumers in this new economy. We need to consider new dimensions of "value" that will shape customer behavior. We need to develop plans that address:

  • How we’re going to create value, foster goodwill and preserve (and expand!) brand affinity when there’s just less “love” (time, money, attention) to go around…

  • How we’re going to prioritize and optimize our activities around the customer…doing fewer things more efficiently and responsibly, rather than doing more.

  • How we’re going to keep our biggest asset (good staff) employed, adequately rewarded and motivated during tougher times.

    Some assert this economic rough patch will last 18 months, and others assert our current state is merely a symptom of a coming global economic collapse. I'm no economist, so I'll save my opinion for family dinner debates.

    Whatever the scenario, this is not a “future” thing – it’s here, now.

    Beyond thinking greener and contemplating the myriad of ways we can incorporate social media tools into our marketing plans, I think it's wise to start thinking leaner, smarter and with more vision around how to proactively plan for and manage the next-generation customer experience.

    It’s also time to ask tough, but practical questions, such as whether or not our current value propositions can weather this economic storm.... Many of us may need to adjust sails!

    Please let me know your thoughts here or on the Marketing Profs daily fix.
  • Alaska Airlines Experience

    Great article at Fast Company by way of 37 signals about Alaska Airlines' proactive attempts to rethink the check in experience. This is really a great case study that illustrates a point I try to make to my own clients, students and colleagues:

    You don't always need fancy research, study and expensive agencies to help you improve experience. Often, you can find the really innovative solutions yourself. Here's how:

  • Identify the challenge/opportunity
  • Select a mix of your smartest, most enthusiastic, hardest working people
  • Give them a reasonable amount of uninterrupted time within which to problem-solve
  • Encourage them to talk to other people who have solved similar problems - even outside of your own market
  • Give them the ability to brainstorm, model and experiment
  • Have them create a prioritized list of improvements, based on business and customer value
  • Test each improvement and adjust as necessary
  • Roll out solid solutions across the board

    In this case, Alaska Airlines assembled a team of its own people. They read books, interviewed and visited theme parks (like Disney), hospitals and retailers to find innovative solutions to expediting check-in. They created models for the redsign using cardboard boxes (cool) ... and then they built test podiums and refined the designs in real airports.

    The article will tell you more. In summary, the outcome has been improved customer service, streamlined check ins for customers and a significant cost savings.

    A+ to Alaska for its grassroots approach to resolving customer experience challenges from both the customer AND the business side. This seems a heckuva lot smarter than cutting out meals, beverages and peanuts...
  • Amazon Down - Twitter Up!??

    I had a surreal moment today when I discovered that Amazon.com - the most reliable eCommerce site around is down. Meanwhile, while Twitter - the most unrealiable microblogging website around - was up!

    For awhile at least. Twitter went down shortly thereafter. Probably due to so many people tweeting about Amazon.

    What's it gonna cost the seller of all things? Well, according to my Ad Age alert...the downtime is worht $1.8 Million dollars per hour.

    Ouch. That's gotta hurt!

    A Noisy Virtual Cubicle

    I left corporate America for the blissful freedom of self-employment several years ago. Prior to this point, I had spent years working with startup companies, living in cubicles and hijacked conference room spaces... I was at the point in my career where an office with a door was almost a guarantee.

    Ahh...the office with a door....

    But then, I went into consulting. As a traveling "Big 5" consulant, I traded my office dream for the hope of first class upgrades (more laptop space to work within), shared offices and desk spaces, borrowed client cubicles and - of course - hijacked conference room space.

    It was a noisy and distracting existence.

    Today, I've got my spacious office, with a door. I can have a happy dog at my feet (if I want) - even a baby and some toys (if I want). Yay!

    Well, I was celebrating, until I expanded my involvement in social networks, joining Facebook, Twitter and Plurk among others. Now, I seem to be back in a noisy cubicle again. I'm being plurked and tweeted, IM'd, DM'd and friended by people I don't know, filtering out conversations I don't have time for, people are writing on my wall and sending me links to things I must read.

    The funny thing is, I don't even have that many friends or followers. I used to want more. But after my recent mprofs article, in which I invited people to follow me on Plurk and Twitter -- perhaps I should reconsider. There's joy in being a neatly kept secret...in managing one's conversation streams.

    For now, I find myself again working in a noisy and distracting existence. Part fun - part frustration - part vortex. It's easy to feel like there's no door - but truth be told, there is. It's called "EXIT"... but my desire to do that with each application is proportionate to my fear that I'll be missing out of the discussion, in some way (good and bad). Maybe I'll get over that soon and disconnect a bit.

    Gag me with an app!

    It seems each day I’m presented with yet another "killer app" I need to go evaluate and monitor.

    These seem to have a few things in common. First, most seem to have these cutesy 3-7 letter names like "Blyk" and "Fark". Second, none of the names really reflect what the apps do. Next, most of the home pages for these services use fluffy language to describe the value they offer - or how they may be distinct from other similar services within their niche. Finally, many of them are similar in functionality and purpose.

    I challenged myself to take a bit of a top-of-mind list of social applications - not including games - today. It started with a list I had on a post-it note on my desk. Some are older and you'll recognize them. Some may be new to you, as they were to me. Note that this was a casual effort - and I quickly got to about 70, in number. Sorted alphabetically...
    • Backflip
    • Bebo
    • Blinklist
    • Bloglog
    • Blogmarks
    • Blyk
    • BrightKite
    • De.licio.us
    • Digg
    • Diigo
    • Disqus
    • Dopplr
    • Facebook
    • Fark
    • Faves
    • Feed Me Links
    • Flickr
    • Friendster
    • Friendfeed
    • Furl
    • Goodreads
    • Ilike
    • Jaiku
    • Jott
    • Hi5
    • Last.fm
    • Librarything
    • Linked in
    • Live
    • ma.gnolia
    • Mixx
    • MrWong
    • Multiply
    • Myspace
    • Newsvine
    • Netvibes
    • NetVous
    • Orkut
    • Pandora
    • Picasa
    • PhotoCrank
    • Plaxo
    • Pownce
    • Propeller
    • Reddit
    • Seesmic
    • Segnalo
    • Simpy
    • Slashdot
    • Slide
    • Slideshare
    • Smugmug
    • Spurl
    • Stumbleupon
    • Tailrank
    • Tumblr
    • Twirl
    • Twitter
    • Twitterbuzz
    • Upcoming
    • Utterz
    • Veotag
    • Vimeo
    • Wink
    • Qik
    • Yelp
    • Zoomr

    I actually put these in a spreadsheet and categorized them by type (Community, Utility, Media Sharing, Bookmarking...etc.) after looking up each one. I also added a brief description. This was a lot of work. (Thankfully, I had a client delay so I had time). The thing is, I kept finding more as I went along. If you're reading this you may even know of one that's not on this list... and I wonder how many more are added each day...

    Sunday's discovery (yes Mack - it was on Twitter) was "PLURK". I hadn't heard of Plurk before. Maybe I spend too much of my spare time changing diapers or something. Evidently, it's Toronto's answer to Friendfeed or Twitter. I'm not enthusiastic about the name... it reminds me of "PERVERT" plus "LURK" - not positive really. I guess at the least it is memorable.

    All this to say: Call me crazy but I'm seriously getting to the point of total app saturation; so much so that I've developed a syndrome I call "APP reflex." It involves a facial tic, shoulder spasm and a gagging sinus noise. This came on gradually but was fully in force after one day of casual research. It is doing wonders for my marriage (attractive!!!).

    I can only imagine what the high tech venture capitalists think about this topic as they're presented with the flavor of the day startup. They probably have nightmares. But I digress again...

    Like the rest of you, I do have a day job. Fortunately, this is relevant to my day job, so I can justify writing this post. It's enough to say that it IS very hard to keep up on the exponential growth of the social applications, sites and utilities out there. It takes time to evaluate and use each one -- and some tinkering to figure out which tools are things that will become valuable for the future, and which things are fly-by-night, wannabe technologies.

    This exponential growth is another reason why Forrester's Peter Kim recently produced research that indicates a very strong lack of confidence in agency ability to keep up on new technologies and know how to apply them intuitively to boost bottom line results and customer loyalty. ;-)

    If by chance I happen to find something valuable, I've got to take the time to use it - and have it top-of-mind, and keep up on it - figure out how it's going to be valuable to my clients. That's not always easy. Truth be told -- the activity can be a colossal waste of time if one is not selective. While now I could be considered a "twitterpated" evangelist, the whole investment thing was part of the reason I was a latecomer to Twitter.

    But there is hope as the apps proliferate. Last week, I was quite happy to find AddThis... an application that allows you to add one button to your site that allows users to Digg, Multiply, Bookmark, Reddit, Twitter away on any post... In fact, I believe it works with at least 20 services. Adding this to my site was grand time saver and I was happy not to have to add those links individually. ;-)

    Who knows how many other helpful utilities like this will come along for folks like me -- like us -- who are time starved and look for a way to cut through the noise and figure things out!

    So I'm encouraged... and as the apps multiply like rabbits in heat...I will press on - bold and brave. I heard rumors about drug trial for people dealing with APP REFLEX and I'm thinking of signing up. Feel free to join me.

    But seriously, if you know of more social apps, send them to me with a brief link or description. I'll do my best to publish this list with categories and descriptions in the near future for the benefit of all.

    On Usability & User Experience

    Great article in Advertising Age last week, in case you missed it. Google's Web Analytics guru Avinash Kaushik asserts that one of the reasons why so many websites "suck" today is because of the hippo -- as in the "highest paid person's opinion."

    I've worked with a lot of Hippos in my lifetime, and this really cracked me up. It's also very true... Sadly, Kaushik asserts that the individuals making choice decisions about what works best for customers on the web are often those the least connected to those customers. This ties to a bunch of stuff we've been saying on this site for a very long time.

    Also - decent article from Mark Hurst in his May 20th Good Experience on the top mistakes companies are making in usability testing. I've included the link to the online article here - there's some good reader discussion there.

    Starbucks and Co-Creation

    Excellent post by Ted Mininni on Mprofs today about the recent launch of Starbuck's MyStarbucksIdea web site. The site allows interested users to submit ideas, vote on ideas, add comments to ideas and view responses from others - including Starbucks "Idea Partners" (48 trained Starbucks employees tasked with championing good ideas). This is good stuff and we're going to see more of it. Starbucks illustrates perfectly the point I keep making about staying close to your customers. Evidently, Shultz realizes the importance of the pulse of customers... I am rooting for them, but I still question whether this will be enough to help Starubucks in a lagging economy? The idea "Lower Your Prices" has 19610 votes, so far. Guess we'll see!

    Crawl Like Your Customers

    The experts tell me that, when it’s time to baby-proof my house, my husband and I should get down on our hands and knees and crawl through our home at “baby height” to find any risks that may be present for our child. I did this the other day. It was actually eye opening because it gave me a totally new perspective.

    It then occured to me that this is precisely what we should all do with with our customers if we're truly interested in improving their experience with our brands. In doing so, we can better position ourselves to innovate and even co-create with our customers in a manner that builds brand loyalty and market share.

    To better illustrate this point, please crawl with me, for a moment...

    As some of you know, in addition to being an experience architect, I am the mother of a seven month old. He has been incredibly sick for ten days now. As a result, my focus has not been on working, writing or tweeting … but on changing, bathing and hydrating a feverish, restless baby.

    In the course of doing caring for baby, I had a myriad of less-than-stellar product experiences. These prompted me to ask:
    • How many Huggies and Pampers brand or product managers have had to work in a daycare for a week?

    • How many babies have the Aveeno Baby or other product managers at Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson actually had to wash using their product(s)?

    • How many purple-stained onesies have the makers of Pedialyte had to clean?
    And I wonder, if these individuals actually got these assignments, if they’d actually design:
    • Diapers that readily discourage leakage up the back of baby

    • Easy-grip, non-tip containers designed for one-hand use, which naturally force product to the bottom of the bottle so that it's easy to access and dispense through a no-leak dispenser.

    • Non-staining flavored electrolyte formula for babies
    This certainly seems intuitive - but perhaps I'm some kind of weird customer anomoly. All of these product improvement/innovation ideas are 100% actionable... and produced simply through repeated exposure to product use. This proves that customer listening, improvement and innovation don't require magic powers or extensive and expensive customer research.

    If this formula is true:

    ...then how important is it that we experience our products as our customers would - rather than going from third-party research, our gut, or just plain ignorance. This would seem the only way to ensure the "aspirational brands" (brands we want to create) match up with our actual brand recognition.

    The point: If you're not "crawling with your customers", you are missing out on some important perspective.

    Cottonelle on Crack

    Coco Chanel used to say that before leaving your house, you should check yourself in a mirror and remove at least one accessory from your ensemble. That's part of the reason she became a style icon: She knew when too much was enough. Not so for Kimberly Clark/Cottonelle in their new (largest) non-traditional advertising campaign EVER...

    Hat tip to Adrants, whose initial coverage led to tear jerking laughter for me and my family. Since then, in an attempt to be fair, I've done a little more research. I can't help but come away with the opinion that this is one of the most over accessorized campaigns I've ever seen!

    Up front, it sounded like a clever idea for the puppy-advertising brand. As summarized the concept is something like this ...

    "Life's rough on your bottom. Be kind to your behind with Cottonelle."

    Not bad, right? The schtick -- Make your own pledge to be kind to your behind in exchange for a chance to win a luxury give away. We'll also give you free coupons!

    Cute. Lots of advertising potential! But then they began to accessorize...

    First (and the most understandable move, in my opinion), they merged the idea with their "adorable mascot" the infamous Cottonelle puppy. I understand - continuity.

    The thing is, they made the mascot into a spokespuppy. Note the freakish new voice, which they're using on the new commercials and on the web site.

    This is where Coco begins to twitch. At least they don't make his mouth animate when he talks! (Shudder)

    Then they added more stuff: On the web site, where you can create your own pledge and enter to win... they've got totally unrelated bells and whistles that don't really boost the experience at all. In fact, some are totally disconnected from it. .

    For example, you canattach a garish, nearly illegible cartoon to your pledge. It appears they are drawn on toilet paper. Many show people sitting on toilets. I wonder how much they paid for this crap? (Pun intentional) Here's an example courtesy of the website...


    Incidentally, I have a friend with a sleeping disorder that had a similar incident in college. She missed her finals and it took four hours to get the sensaton back in her legs

    Then there's the outdoor advertising component. Does anyone else feel this gets lost in context? They bought a wrap in the subway.... but to really make a statement, why not outfit some of those hard seats with cushions - or brand some restroom space and make them cleaner, more comfortable...and graced with Cottonelle? That's what Charmin did in Times Square. This is entirely forgettable.

    Then, my favorite accessory: The mobile component. Nope. Sorry. It's not mobile as in wireless - as in the ability to find any restroom within 1000 feet of your phone, compliments of Cottonelle.... It's mobile as in motor vehicle! Meet Cottonelle's "Comfort Haven Bus."

    According to Ad Rants, the bus will engage in a cross-country tour stopping at locations across the United States: "The bus will offer visitors access to "relaxation stations" where people can see first-hand -- and hopefully in privacy -- how soft and comforting Cottonelle can be."

    Somehow, "Come poop in our bus" just seems a little far fetched to me (pun intended). But it it gets even worse, folks. The bus has fur!


    Come poop in our PUPPY bus? Okay, now you vote: which of the following does the Comfort Haven Bus most resemble?


    Lest, I digress, they're not done, they've also added an on-board fitness trainer who will give people who sit down a lot some helpful advice to “loose the caboose.”

    AND... just to show you they're not done accessorizing, they retained Judith Greer from ABC's "Miss Guided" as a kickoff celebrity. Now, I like her. She's funny, but what she has to do with toilet paper escapes me.

    All this to say, this whole campaign is just, well -- OVER ACCESSORIZED. Sometimes, we just need to know when enough is enough. Otherwise, we find ourselves on - or over - the edge of ridiculous.

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    LEIGH DURST

    LEIGH DURST
    I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.

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